Tuesday, November 15, 2016


     The night the Cubs won the World Series — less than two weeks ago, as difficult as that might be to believe — I slid by the Field Museum for the Founders' Council party for their new tattoo exhibit. 
     It was the sort of thing that sounded like a good idea beforehand — I'm not a big sports fan, why not take in something cultural when everybody else is holing up at a sports bar? Although I admit, a half hour before the opening pitch, sitting in a theater at the Field, listening to two ethnographers discuss tattooing in the Philippines, well, I wondered just what was wrong with me.
    But the Field people set up a big flat screen in the lobby. And the show was interesting, surveying a practice that has been part of nearly every society, throughout time. They created silicon torsos and commissioned some of the best living tattoo artists to decorate them; it seemed a clever solution to how to display the designs without offending our Midwestern standards of prudery.
      Tattooing is not my thing—I remember three years ago, when I wrote an article examining the practice in Chicago, I considered getting one — nothing elaborate, just a simple orange dot, say, the size of a pinhead, on my inner forearm, to see what it was like. But I knew, as soon as I imagined doing it, that I couldn't. I'd hate having it there, probably end up gouging it out of my arm, just to be rid of the thing.  I have a hard enough time buying glasses.
    Which is silly, because our lives tattoo us whether we like it or not, every line, every spot, time's artwork upon our faces. Whether we are happy or sad, sour or easy-going. We tattoo ourselves silently, inexpertly. I admire people who can do it cavalierly. But I'm not them. 
    Even though I wouldn't want one, I did appreciate the designs, particularly this modern America eagle by London artist Alex Binnie, who melds traditions of Africa, the North Pacific and New Guinea into what he calls "urban primitivism." I couldn't get a tattoo, as I said, but if I did get one, I'd hope it was something like this. 
    In a clever move, the Field Museum has set up a working tattoo parlor, where top Chicago artists will put designs on customers, of which there was no shortage. In the first three hours, the president of the Field told us, they received 2,900 calls from people who wanted tattoos applied at the Field. The waiting list has 1,000 people on it. The tattoos cost $250 each, and the artwork must be selected from among 42 designs. The first public sessions are Nov. 19.
      I always thought that tattooing had become so popular in the United States in the past decades because we had lost the tribalism that glued people together for millennia, and this was a way to ape it. But as the recent election shows, the tribalism never really went away. Society was just focused on the new globalism, which we thought was the future, and now seems as if it might have been a phase, a veneer that can be puffed away by a small percentage of the country falling this way instead of that on a particular day. Tribalism reared up, like a bushman on the savannah, and drove a spear deep into our notions of America. 
     Enough. The tattoos have a cartoonish beauty, such as these designs from Sailor Jerry, a famous Hawaiian artist of the 1940s and 1950s. They have an innocence, a joy. 
     If it seems a stretch for the Field, that might be because the show was developed by Musee du quai Branly — Jacques Chirac, Paris' newest major museum, which opened in 2006 on the Left Bank of the Seine. It runs through April 30.



  1. This is making me think of one of my biggest guilty-pleasure novels, Stephen Hunter's Dirty White Boys. Tattooing is a major plot point. This hardcore criminal busts out of prison and takes along with him another prisoner, a wimpy artist with whom he has struck up a sort of friendship. The artist designs a tattoo for him, leaving the design behind at the scene of a robbery. The cop hero guesses what it is and shows up at the tattoo parlor while the antihero is getting the work done, leading to one of the most blazing shootouts in fiction.

  2. To tattoo or not to tattoo: a question it seems to me that is not susceptible to equivocating. You're either a tattoo person or you're not. What draws one person repels another. I got my first tattoo transitioning from seminarian to sailor, but I feel that even had I continued my vocation to the priesthood, I would have hankered for a tattoo past the point of the possibility of actually getting one. Could be that my Uncle's faded "USN" tattoo created that desire; certainly his penchant for drinking whiskey validated my own recourse to such. Fortunately, I didn't become a priest, a tattoed, whiskey drinking priest, and my sailorhood ended before I became addicted to that kind of life.


  3. I had to chuckle at the aptness of this column for my own recent experience. The day after the Cubs won the Series, I was in a tattoo parlor on Irving Park Rd. watching my sister get her first (and most likely last) tattoo, Cubs-themed, fulfilling a vote made earlier in the season to get one if they went all the way. I was not tempted to join her.


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